What is the impression that secular Americans have of religious ones? It’s probably not that presented in a piece posted on the Atlantic’s website this week called “Being Gay at Jerry Falwell’s University.” In it, the author describes how his homosexual inclinations were handled by the faculty and other students at Liberty University in Virginia. The author ultimately decides to drop out of school because he can’t live by its code of conduct. He ends the piece with an anecdote about being invited to the home of Dr. Borland, one of his former professors.
His brow furrowed a little bit, and I assumed he was going to tell me he was disappointed with my decision to drop out and come out.
"Well," he said, and then he thought some more. He took one step closer to me, and cleared his throat before continuing. "I got your email, Brandon."
He paused again, as he searched my face for who knows what.
He spoke again, this time quieter than before. "I just wanted to let you know that you're my friend and I love you." And with that, he nodded his head and then gave me a bear hug, before walking me to the driveway and telling me to make it home safely.
I climbed into my car almost in slow-motion. I was shocked. I was expecting Dr. Borland to act differently towards me. I was expecting him to be . . . well, a homophobe. But as I put on my seatbelt, I realized that all that time, I was the one who was afraid. Not him. I'd been warned my whole life about homophobia, but no one ever said anything about homophobiaphobia.
It is not uncommon to hear that evangelical Christians preach “love the sinner,” but don’t practice it. And that they have “privileged” the sin of homosexuality over and above all others. That is, they reserve a special ire for gays and lesbians. The fact that these scenes of compassion take place at Liberty should be a sign to secular America that this view is not entirely accurate.
In a piece in today’s New York Times, though, author T. M. Luhrmann does more to cement that inaccurate view. Luhrmann, a secular academic who has written a somewhat sympathetic account of American evangelicalism, argues that secular and religious types often misunderstand each other and dig their heels in. Along the way, she explains her recent media experience.
I went on my first Christian radio show, a year ago, and the host set out to save me -- live, on a nationally syndicated program, for 30 minutes. In the few seconds before I was connected, when I could hear him on the air but he could not hear me, he explained: “Listen, she’s not one of us. But I won’t fight with her.” It was a pledge he did not keep. Did I think God was present? My response, that I was speaking as a social scientist, interested him not at all.
I don’t know what show Luhrmann went on, but I have done my share of religious radio interviews and have never had this happen. For that matter, in all of the interviews I’ve done for columns and books over the past 15 years, only the dean at Bob Jones University tried proselytizing. And while he did shed a few tears, there was no hostility in the exchange. And he definitely did not, as Luhrmann describes her experience, “grill me about the state of my soul.”
All of which is to say that I found Lurhmann’s piece a little disingenuous. She describes how secular folks express shock and horror that she even talks to believing Christians. But having been in her position, I suspect that this form of hostility happens much more often than religious folks acting rudely toward her because she is a nonbeliever.